18 Jan

Testing the Waters of Modern Icelandic Literature

Book review: The Whispering Muse by Sjón

The Whispering Muse - Cover

The Whispering Muse – Cover

Because I started learning Icelandic this year, I decided it would be a good time to check out some Icelandic literature in translation. Most people are familiar with the Icelandic sagas, but there is a lot of modern literature coming out of Iceland too. I realized I could be reading Icelandic literature in a roundabout way. I had been reading David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. The book mentions Halldór Laxness, an Icelandic author who received the Nobel Prize for literature. I know, this isn’t a review about Laxness, as you’re undoubtedly thinking. Well, I did get a Laxness novel from the library but I read The Whispering Muse first because it is much shorter and I practice library triage. So, here we go.

The Whispering Muse takes the form of a memoir of an older Icelandic gentleman named Valdimar Haraldsson. Haraldsson fills his time with running a journal about the connection between fish and culture–specifically that fish is the secret to Nordic superiority. Haraldsson’s memoir details the events aboard the merchant ship MS Elizabeth Jung-Olsen, where Haraldsson stays as a ‘supernumary’ thanks to the largess of Norwegian shipping magnate Magnus Jung-Olsen. The story takes place in the late 1940s.

Each night while onboard the ship, Haraldsson dines at the captain’s table with several of the crew and the paramour of one of the crew members. Haraldsson becomes increasingly horrified each night because fish, nor seafood of any kind, does not appear on the dinner menu. Several days in, Haraldsson takes it upon himself to go fishing (the ship spends most of the story docked at a paper mill in a Norwegian fjord). His catch is made into several meals, to Haraldsson’s delight and to everyone else’s skepticism.

After the evening’s repast, the second mate, Caeneus, recounts a part of the saga of Jason and the Argonauts. To tell the story, Caeneus holds a woodchip up to his ear. Caeneus receives the tale from the woodchip and relays it to the group.

Haraldsson assumes that the business with the woodchip is some sort of conceit, but everyone else takes it seriously. Caeneus later reveals that the chip is a piece of the Argo itself, which is why it can tell him the story.

I’m not sure The Whispering Muse was really the right entree into Icelandic literature. I don’t really feel like I “got” the book, but I’m going to give it my best interpretation anyway because it’s just the internet, not a peer-reviewed literary journal.

The Whispering Muse is apparently a satirical take on a milquetoast Icelander who, preoccupied with the inherent superiority of his own people, cannot recognize true excellence when he sees it. Caeneus’ tales of the Argonauts feature excitement and heroics. In contrast, when Haraldsson has the opportunity to speak, he presents a rambling lecture on his fish and culture thesis. It is not well-received.

At the end of the story, Haraldsson, confronted by someone truly superior, only f lees. An epilogue explains that he loosened up on his view about fish and Nordic supremacy after his stint on the Elizabeth Jung-Olsen. I also suspect it is intentional that Haraldsson is dwelling on Nordic superiority so shortly after World War II. The Germans adopted the Nordic myths and used them as part of their claim for racial superiority. It would be a little awkward to walk around talking about how great the Nordic people are so soon after the same myths were unfortunately used (in part) to justify atrocity.

It was interesting to read a novel translated from Icelandic because it offered some different word use than what we normally get in English literature. I have to thank both the author and translator for this one, since literature in translation is so influenced by the translator. This translation had some gems, like the phrase higgledy-piggledy. You have to wonder how that appears in Icelandic (This just in: Google Translate says it’s the same in both languages. What a buzzkill).

What to read next:

  • I think I have to recommend Halldór Laxness as a next read. Independent People seems to be his most famous work, but there are certainly quite a few options.
  • I guess I’m cheating a bit for both of these recommendations, but I’m going to recommend The Bone Clocks as well. I just finished it about a week ago. It was definitely worth reading. It’s a kind of speculative fiction that is so close to reality that you forget you’re reading something that is arguably magical realism.
16 Dec

North Korea Is Not for the Faint of Heart

book cover: Without You, There Is No Us

Without You, There Is No Us

I saw Suki Kim on The Daily Show a few nights ago. Although I barely registered the content of her interview, I heard enough to decide her book would probably be interesting. Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite is a memoir detailing the six months Kim spent teaching English in a covertly Christian university in Pyongyang. Luckily for me, the library had a digital copy of the book available, so I was able to pick it up immediately.

Without You, There Is No Us has a nice narrative flow (Kim notes at the end that she did rearrange the order of some events for the sake of storytelling). Despite the fact that there is no real climax, I was captivated by Kim’s description of life in North Korea and finished the book in about two days. The short version: North Korea sounds like it really sucks.

The first time Kim visits North Korea is as a journalist. She goes on a press trip when an orchestra from the United States visits North Korea. Although the trip was hailed as a victory for diplomacy and culture by most of the press, Kim disagreed. She became more interested in North Korea and eventually applied to work at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST).

PUST is a school with a strange mission: brining Christianity to North Korea. As you might expect, Christianity is outlawed in North Korea. The only religion is the state-sponsored Juche ideology, which is not so much a religion as the North Korean regime’s all-consuming cult of personality. Kim accepts a summer position at this Christian school that cannot teach any form of Christianity (as daring as they get is trying to show students the Chronicles of Narnia movie—such a strong Christian message!). To do so, she has to pretend not only to be Christian, but also to be a teacher. After the summer term, she ends up staying on for the fall, despite her reservations.

Suki Kim on The Daily Show

Suki Kim on The Daily Show

Kim contextualizes the narrative by discussing her Korean heritage, discussing her own experience and that of her parents during the Korean War. Kim is from South Korea; her family immigrated to the United States when she was 13. She explains to readers that all South Korean families, or clans, if you will, have a home turf in Korea and a history—usually a history that explains how their family practically saved Korea. This is called bon-gwan. While the Korean War drove many South Korean families from their bon-gwan, many were still able to maintain a sense of kinship and managed to rebuild afterwards. But for North Koreans, Kim eventually realizes, the regime has completely obliterated the kinship system. North Koreans move where they are told to move, work where they are told to work. They no longer have ancestral ties to the land or strong family networks. She realizes that this is not only a division between two Koreas, but another method of control.

Just as Kim contrasts Koreas North and South, she contrasts her isolation with the relentless communal spirit surrounding her. Kim is essentially isolated and the reader can see how hard it wears on her, especially by the end of her stay. She has to work to represent herself as someone else to her colleagues and she has to appear to go along with North Korean rules. Her conversations and correspondence are monitored, so she draws deeper into herself. By the end of her second teaching term, Kim seems extremely depressed.

On the other hand, Kim’s students are a study in cohesion. In North Korea, it seems that no one goes anywhere alone. Her classes stick together, and are buddied up within the class groups. No one is ever alone. But, to Kim, their camaraderie reads as at least a little false. After the students class groups are reshuffled for the fall semester, everyone is suddenly best friends with their new classmates, the old apparently forgotten. As Kim puts it, “It was odd that I should have felt so in need of a human connection in this communal space.”

Perhaps “camaraderie” really is the right word for her students’ friendliness. Her class groups have a class monitor—and the Korean word they use for the monitor translates to “platoon leader.” The students march in formation, sing militaristic songs, and take shifts standing guard over their local shrine to their Glorious Leader. Everything the students do has a militaristic cast.

Of course the weirdest aspect of the book (and best, by voyeuristic standards) was reading about the weird gaps and limitations in North Korean education. Kim’s students were those of Pyongyang’s elite and attended what was, ostensibly, a school for studying science and technology. Yet, none had heard of the internet. The students ask Kim remarkably naïve questions like whether everyone in the world spoke Korean. Kim recounts, “[The student] had heard the Korean language was so superior that they spoke it in England, China, and America.” The students were also strangely fixated on North Korea being the best at everything. As Kim says, “They were always comparing themselves to the outside world, which none of them had ever seen, declaring themselves the best. This insistence on ‘best’ was strangely childlike, and the words best and greatest were used to frequently that they gradually lost their meaning.”

One of the things that occurred to me as I read this book was that here in the United States we do tend to use North Korea as the butt of a lot of jokes (look no further than The Colbert Report, or anywhere on the internet), but in reality, the people there are suffering. North Korea is a dictatorship that is a non-stop human rights catastrophe. It sounds insane, but to be candid, this is real shit.

kimjongun-cake

There is a lot more I could say about Without You There Is No Us because there are a lot of issues that Kim struggles with, especially in regards to her students. She constantly tries to push the boundaries of getting them to think without breaking the rules. I also appreciated her take on some of her Christian colleagues and their opinions on their “mission” in North Korea, but I think I will leave those ideas for someone else to review.

Without You There Is No Us is definitely worth reading for a glimpse into the lives of people in North Korea.

What to read next:

  • The Interpreter is Suki Kim’s novel. I can’t say I know a lot about it, but I liked Kim’s memoir and am interested in reading more of her work.
  • After this, of course, I wanted to read some more about Korean history and why there is such a divide between North and South Korea. One that looks good is The Korean War: An International History by Wada Haruki.
  • Unrelated to anything Korea, my last recommendation is God’s War by Kameron Hurley. I just finished it and I really liked it. It’s a future space planet with two cultures inhabiting Islam-inspired spaces. It has great characters and an interesting world.
09 Oct

Brotherhood and Modern Philosophy: The Great Glass Sea

Book Review: The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil

Book Cover: The Great Glass Sea

Book Cover: The Great Glass Sea

As I read this book, I was sure I would not write a review about it. The Great Glass Sea is a dense, complex story. It is stuffed with thick, filling imagery and, frankly, it took a long time to read. At first, I thought there would be nothing I could say that would add to the experience of this novel, but I let my thoughts percolate for a few days and I have decided to write.

I was excited to get this book even though I knew nothing about it. I received The Great Glass Sea for my first installment of Powell’s Indiespensible, a subscription service for hand-picked books accompanied by thematically-appropriate goodies (this book came with a water bottle and several sachets of tea, if you are wondering). Since I did not know what to expect, I also found it hard to start this book. The first few pages seemed compelling, but I got a little bogged down in the newness of the concept and the Russian names. However, once I got used to that, I definitely got into the story and the way the story was told.

The Great Glass Sea follows the lives of twin brothers Yaroslav (Yarik) and Dmitry (Dima) Zhuvov—not their entire lives, of course. That would be dull. Rather, Weil zooms in on what separates Yarik and Dima, what pushes their lives onto opposing trajectories.

There are hints of Yarik and Dima’s separation from the beginning of the story, from their childhood, but it was not until I neared the end that I realized that the seeds of their separation were sown so early on.

Most of the story focuses on Yarik and Dima as adults. The boys’ town, located in the north eastern reaches of Russia, the parts that get so little winter sun, is home to a mad engineering project: the Oranzheria (“greenhouse” in Russian). The Consortium is building a gigantic series of mirrors to reflect light into the city. The project invigorates the people of Petroplavilsk. Men work 12-hour days erecting the mirrors, working their way across the Petroplavilsk and the outlying area. Yarik and Dima used to work on the same crew, but that changed after they were found doing nothing all day while on the clock by the Consortium’s CEO. Afterward, the brothers are put on separate shifts. They only see each other on holidays and at the bus stop during the shift change each day.

A map

Where in the world is Petroplavislsk? Waaay out there.

This separation sets off a series of events that propel the brothers Zhuvov into separate orbits. Yarik becomes a “friend” of the CEO and the front man for the Consortium’s advertisements in Petroplavilsk. Because Yarik has a wife and two young children, he sees the importance of moving up and embracing the culture of work. Dima, in contrast, quits work not long after their separation. Dima decides he feels no need to work. He roams the city, falls in with various anti-Oranzheria groups and, for the most part, loses the will do to anything other than save up for a day when he can be together with Yarik.

Each brother shows a side of this modernized, capitalized Russia. This is a Russia dragged out of the Soviet Era, which the people of Petroplavilsk call The Past Life, and into a world infused with American-style capitalism.

What is interesting about how The Great Glass Sea illustrates these concepts—brotherhood, capitalism—is that each brother personifies a choice. What I really like about this is, in my view, that Weil did not make a judgment. Is the capitalism better than The Past Life? Worse? You decide, dear reader. From this portrait, it seems that there are both positive and negative consequences for either decision.

Dima represents The Past Life. He wants to purchase their uncle’s old farm (technically the farm belongs to a socialist collective, but the brothers Zhuvov are among the few who can now purchase it) and live there with Yarik and his family. To Dima, work is pointless if he cannot spend it with his brother. In fact, most of life is pointless without Yarik. Instead of working, Dima saves the money that Yarik gives him to take care of their mother. He sells practically everything not nailed down in the apartment he shares with his elderly, addled mom. Dima searches for meaning out in the world, rather than attempting to find meaning through work. However, the people of Petroplavilsk view Dima as a layabout at best and as a lunatic at worst. His indifference toward temporal needs hastens his mother’s death. His inability to connect with the rest of the world makes him an outcast and further separates him from his brother.

Yarik represents a work-focused, capitalistic viewpoint. He wants to provide a good life for his wife and kids, rejecting Dima’s bucolic vision. Although Dima remembers life with their uncle on the farm as some kind of paradise, Yarik recalls the miseries and the work involved with living off the land. At the Oranzheria, he ascends from laborer to foreman to manager thanks to his relationship with the Consortium’s CEO. While his progress is emblematic of the American Dream (permit me this; there does not seem to be a “Russian Dream”) his rise is actually not a reflection of a functioning meritocracy, but is a way for the Consortium’s CEO to get ahold of the farm that a bunch of old communists refuse to sell—the farm that Dima wants to buy. This relationship also puts Yarik in several ethically questionable and even dangerous situations. But on the upside, Yarik’s family has a computer and a car.

The Great Glass Sea intrigues me because it does not pick sides. Is The Past Life better than the Oranzheria’s present? I find it reassuring to find a work that depicts a dichotomy without taking sides. So very different from the current American trend of giving equal time to “both sides” of an issue, whether or not an issue is too complex to have “sides” like that.

Philosophy aside, there were other compelling elements to this novel. The Great Glass Sea is speculative fiction with the lightest of touches. I am tempted to call it science-fiction, but I am not sure I really can. The Oranzheria is science-fiction-esque in that humans built a contraption to redirect the light of the sun so that a Russian town does not have to endure darkness any longer. Despite that, the Oranzheria is more like a set piece than like something from science fiction. Maybe it is hard to call this science fiction because the people and the world are so starkly real.

I would perhaps like to categorize the book as magical realism, but I think that might be a stretch too. The Great Glass Sea is very real, very present. I would even classify it as literary fiction, but the book, like its characters, takes multiple views. I think that genre fiction fans will enjoy it, as will readers of “literary” or “regular” fiction (what is that even called? This may be a sign that I read too much “genre” fiction. So be it).

The Great Glass Sea brings Russian folklore into the fray as well. Although I love myth and folklore, it turns out I know nothing about Russian folklore. One creature that is mentioned throughout the book is the Chudo-Yudo. There is not even a Wikipedia page about this creature (in English at least). It seems to be some kind of dragon (but possibly a metal band, who knows?). Clearly, I need to read up on it.

The Chudo-Yudo

The Chudo-Yudo, terrifying yet adorable.

Finally, Weil’s prose, once you settle into it, is delicious. His descriptions are long and lovely. This does make the book slower to read, unlike a dialog-dense book that moves along at a brisk pace. It’s worth it though.

Here’s a sample of Weil’s writing style. This is a description of the Oranzheria—also called the zerkala coming into view:

In the last hour of nature’s light, as the planet rolled away from the sun, the zerkala rose off the eastern horizon, their refracted glow red as the sky in the west. People called it vooskho zerkala. Mirror rise. From then to dawn the satellites drifted overhead, a sliding swatch of stars, their mirrors ever angling to cant the sun’s light down on the same circle of earth. And as the first zerkala followed their path over the world’s western edge, the bank of mirrors behind them took up the task, and then the zerkala behind them, and behind them, all through the hours that once were night.

What to read next:

  • Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword. Did you know the sequel to Ancillary Justice is out? Go read it!
  • In his acknowledgements page, Weil names a few books that helped him write this one. One is Russian Fairy Tales compiled by Aleksandr Afanasev. It sounds like a good entry to Russian folklore, which I am now interested in reading more about. The chudo-yudo! We must learn more of this strange beast.
  • The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne is another book I read recently. It, too, has a starkness to it, but this novel has stronger science-fiction elements. Highly recommended!
12 Jul

Now with 100% More Civilization

Book Review: Three Princes by Ramona Wheeler

Three Princes book cover

Three Princes book cover

Three Princes is a book that seems to be based on the question “What if Egypt never stopped being great?” In Three Princes,The eastern hemisphere is ruled by a civilized, modern Egypt; the western by a fusion of the Incan and Aztec empires. The novel is apparently set in this alternate universe’s early 19th century. There is a bit of a steampunk vibe accompanying the strange melange of speculative fiction that Wheeler has committed to the page. The story itself is excellent, especially if you like espionage, but what I really appreciated were the books concept and its perspectives on gender issues and religion.

The titular three princes are Lord Scott Oken, Professor-Prince Mikel Marbuke, and Prince Viracocha. Lord Oken, the fourth son of a prominent family in the Britannic Isles, is the story’s protagonist. Although not originally from Egypt, he was educated in Memphis and became a part of the Pharaoh’s spy network. Oken is a memoryman—a person with perfect eidetic memory, trained to recall all—and student of and assistant to Professor-Prince Mabruke. Mabruke trains young spies for the Pharaoh and, as his cover, teaches university courses in aromatics. The Pharaoh calls upon Oken and Mabruke to investigate rumors that the Incas are building a craft to fly them to the moon. In the course of their investigation, they encounter the third prince, the good-natured Prince Viracocha, son of the Incan emperor.

Our princes face the rebellious Black Orchid Society whose mission is to bring down Egypt and replace her reign with that of Queen Victoria, at least one insane Incan prince, and various unnamed European nobility. Without giving too much away, I will say their plan for world domination hinges on a scheme to send the aforementioned moon-bound craft into space to rain explosives down on Memphis. The princes’ journey involves a delightful man-powered flying craft called quetzals (the Nahuatl word for feather), plenty of espionage (Egypt’s preferred way of doing business, talking is much more civilized than fighting, as they say), and lots of beautiful people.

a quetzal

A quetzal bird, yes that’s a real thing

I’m realizing that what really sells me on novels is the concept. I loved the concept of Three Princes and not just because I wanted to be an Egyptologist (but also because of that) when I grew up. Wheeler’s alternate universe is a rich one. She does not go into the world’s history or its various details except as the narrative requires it, but I enjoyed thinking through what could have lead to such a world.

Dear reader, if you would indulge me briefly: it seems that Cleopatra and Caesar formed a strong Egyptian-Roman partnership able to withstand time. Lord Oken explains that he is a direct descendant of both Cleopatra and Caesar and that apparently comes with bragging rights in this world. There is also a vast system of roads, presumably inherited from Roman empire-building. With the Egyptians cum Romans running the show, Europe and Saharan Africa were united. This stunted the formation of various European empires like those of Spain and England. This, in turn, either prevented expansion to or discouraged colonialism in the “New World,” allowing the indigenous empires to flourish. The Incan prince Viracocha states that the Aztecs and Incas fused into one mighty empire and he mentions the mysterious “Maya Lands.” In short, Egypt exerts a civilizing force over the entire planet.

I liked how Wheeler dealt with gender issues in Three Princes. The Egyptians, civilized folk that they are, wear kilts or skirts as a regular part of masculine dress. Egyptian men also wear makeup. Not only that, but wearing makeup is an essential part of looking civilized. At one point, the reader is treated to this humorous exchange between two male characters:

“Our makeup must be perfect in the face of disaster.”

“We are Egyptians, sir.”

There is nothing more Egyptian than looking good and turning in out regardless of circumstances.

Wheeler also shows the differences in how women are treated in Egyptian and Inca culture. Although the protagonists are men, there are many female supporting characters. Lord Oken, in particular, is a window into the Egyptian mentality on women. When Oken and Mabruke visit the Inca, they stay in rooms meant for a newly married couple. Mabruke asks Oken which room he would choose for making love to his bride. Oken responds, “Any place my lady pleases. Ever and always.” To which Mabruke comments, “Spoken like a true Egyptian.” They continue their conversation to observe that the women of the Inca seem singularly repressed. “Women as suppressed as these Andean lovelies are surely the weak point of their civilization,” Oken opines.

Later on, one of the Inca degrades his general by calling him a “fool” for taking orders from a woman. In another instance, in reference to childbirth, the Inca prince asks who would take a woman’s word for who the father of a baby is. This shocks the Egyptians who respond, “Who could know better than the woman herself?” The question belies a more progressive attitude than that seen in our society today and I will leave it at that.

The Egyptians see women as humans. Egyptian women attend university, and in fact, Oken and Mabruke accept their mission from the Egyptian queen. Their ability to see women as people is also what wins the day at the end of the story. Their escape from a fairly unhappy situation was made possible by several women whose talents they trusted.

Another cultural aspect I liked was that of religion. In the Egyptian mindset, all faiths are true. When the nefarious Black Orchid Society claims that they have the one true faith, Oken becomes confused, hardly able to understand the allure of a group making such a claim. He muses, “I mean, if all faiths are true, then this Black Orchid thing is true. But if it’s true, then every other is false, which means they’re all false, so this Orchid thing is false. It just doesn’t add up.” For me, as a non-religious person, I feel like it would be a little easier to accept religion if the prevailing cultural norm was “all faiths are true.” Why is one god and more believable than another?

Wheeler also demonstrates how one’s religion can be a civilizing force. When asked what his gods demand of him, Oken replies, “That I learn to be a decent, civilized human being.” Well, gods be praised, sign me up for that religion! A society’s gods say a lot about what the culture values. In the case of Egypt and its Naytures, civilization and being a decent human is foremost. In contrast, the Inca gods demand blood, which is quite specific and not open to interpretation.

Finally, I want to end with two small points that amused me. The concept of a memoryman made me think of the mentats in Frank Herbert’s Dune. There is some difference—mentats were meant to fill the gap created by humanity outlawing thinking machines. Memorymen have perfect recall instead in a world that has never seen computers. The end result is the mostly the same and, for someone like me who values knowing everything, is pretty enviable. The other thing that make me chuckle is that Oken likes to check the “Horus-scopes” for the day’s prognosis. Of course, this is a pun on horoscope. I actually looked up the etymology on this because it seemed a likely derivation, but no, our English word comes down from Greek for “a look at the hours.” I like Horus-scope better though.

In any case, Three Princes is certainly worth reading. I like to pick all the little concepts out of a book. The story is not all about people talking about religion and gender issues, but those are the aspects of a book I like to discuss. The plot advances well and there is plenty of intrique. I recommend it.

Update (from Twitter): Ramona Wheeler approves of this book review. I think that’s pretty cool!

What to read next:

  • Queen of Kings: A Novel of Cleopatra, the Vampire by Maria Dahvana Headley is a story about Cleopatra (yes, of Anthony and Cleopatra fame) turning into a vampire as the result of a malicious god and a botched summoning. The premise is kind of silly, but it was an entertaining read.

  • Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie is my next pick. Did you not read this book after I told you too? Well, here is your reminder. Even though Ancillary Justice is a space opera, what makes me feel these works are kin is that they both situate themselves at the heart of “civilization.” Civilization has fluid gender performance! That is what modern writers are telling us.

  • Dune by Frank Herbert. This is a sci-fi classic. If you haven’t read it, you should read it. It is one of my long-time favorites.

05 Jul

Come at Me, NSA

Book Review: No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald

book cover

Book cover: No Place to Hide

No Place to Hide is the culmination of a year’s worth of work with Edward Snowden’s cache of NSA documents. The author, Glenn Greenwald, is perhaps best known for his articles in The Guardian documenting national security abuses and the NSA’s surveillance programs. No Place to Hide gives context to the whole event and speaks in detail to the NSA’s actions, the problems with mass surveillance, and the complicity of the media in the whole affair.

What the NSA is doing …

The first section of the book reads a bit like a thriller novel. Greenwald receives an anonymous message from someone promising a major scoop, but the source won’t share the information unless Greenwald sets up some complicated email encryption. Although Greenwald was interested, he did not follow up with the source. Later, Laura Poitras, friend to Greenwald and the other journalist involved in the Snowden leaks (by the way, they won a Pulitzer Prize for their work on this subject) encourages Greenwald to follow a lead that she has. The lead, of course, turns out to be from Snowden who was also the person trying to convince Greenwald to set up encryption Greenwald almost missed the most important story of the decade.

Both Greenwald and Poitras, along with another reporter from The Guardian (with which Greenwald was affiliated) to Hong Kong to meet Snowden. The set up for the meeting is elaborate—the reporters identify Snowden by looking for a man with a Rubik’s cube and exchange pass phrases. Eventually, they begin interviewing Snowden, barely beat The Washington Post to the story and have to leave Hong Kong in a hurry to avoid discovery.

I did want to hear more about the personal story of Snowden, Greenwald, and everyone else involved just because it seems like the kind of story that does not really happen in the modern world. Yet, it did happen. But No Place to Hide, while garnering the reader’s attention with this exciting tale, then turns to the real issue after this exciting introduction: NSA surveillance.

Greenwald reviews some of the major revelations from Snowden’s meticulously organized material. Snowden explained that one of the reasons he wanted to provide this information to a reporter, rather than dump it onto the internet, was that he wanted someone who could put the information in context and make it meaningful. I know that if I were to scan all the documents Snowden provided, I would not get a lot out of it. Fortunately, Greenwald helps readers understand the ecosystem of NSA surveillance, guiding the reader through some rather complex issues.

As usual, I do not want to summarize in any great detail because the book is available to those who want to read it. The overall theme that I took from Greenwald’s descriptions of the NSA’s programs was that the scope of these programs is much, much larger than the average person realizes. The goal of the NSA is literally to collect everything. That is not hyperbole. Greenwald includes slides from various training presentations in the book and the “gotta catch ’em all” attitude is prevalent. The NSA has multiple programs, plus collaborates with the other “Five Eyes” countries (the United States, England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) to gather everything about everyone.

Metadata is one of the critical pieces of the NSA’s program. As someone with a degree in library science, I know what metadata is without asking. When we talk about phone records, metadata is information about when you make calls or send texts, who you call, and how long you stay on the phone. Most people dismiss metadata collection as a minor issue. Greenwald points out that, using metadata, an expert can get a strong sense of how you spend your time. An analyst could determine when you normally sleep, what religion you are (do you make a lot of phone calls on Christmas?), your social network, and a lot more. In fact, metadata can be more informative than the content of a call.

the exterior of the NSA headquarters in Maryland

NSA Headquarters

Another startling issue was what tools the NSA uses for surveillance. A lot of people heard about PRISM, the program that uses technology companies including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, and Facebook to collect people’s information. What I found more alarming was what the NSA does with hardware. Greenwald writes, “For years, the US government loudly warned the world that Chinese routers and other Internet devices post a ‘threat’ because they are built with backdoor surveillance functionality that gives the Chinese government the ability to spy on anyone using them. Yet what the NSA’s documents show is that Americans have been engaged in precisely the activity that the United States accused the Chinese of doing.” So, so much for quitting specific websites to avoid being spied on.

The reason all this is a problem, Greenwald explains, is that mass surveillance limits our freedoms. People behave differently when they know they are being watched. They self-censor, limiting possible choices because they know they need to behave within a certain range of social norms. This is problematic in fields such as the arts. If authors or film-makers are censored (like during the McCarthy Era Hollywood Blacklist), they don’t make things that they know will not be published or produced. They create works that are within the realm of social acceptability. People become afraid to speak out even if no one is being punished (yet). The fact that they are being observed and that there may be repercussions for deviant behavior is enough to stop people from creating dissident works or otherwise speaking out against the government.

Finally, Greenwald calls out the media, the “fourth estate,” for failing us. The main criticism is that the media has become a comfortable part of the political establishment. Reporters are no longer the outsiders they were in the mid-twentieth century. Greenwald describes the media as courtiers to the throne of American political power, “eager to defend the system that vests them with their privileges and contemptuous of anyone who challenges that system.” He also rails against so-called objectivity, which, for the media, is “nothing more than reflecting the biases and serving the interests of entrenched Washington. Opinions are problematic only when they deviate from the acceptable range of Washington orthodoxy.”

and what you can do about it

After reading No Place to Hide, I realized what is really insane about all of this: the scope of it. The fact that the NSA intercepts shipments of hardware like routers, outfits them with their spyware, then sends the shipments on their way. That is insane. Even if you delete your Facebook and stop using Skype, there is no way to get around someone snooping in your internet pipes unless you quit the internet entirely. And who would do that?

I don’t know what the answer is to all this, but I think that educating people on the issues of privacy, civil liberties, and surveillance is an important starting point. The fact that my boss thinks it is a good idea to say things to me along the lines of “I would rather be safe because of my children!” or the classic “It doesn’t bother me because I’m not doing anything wrong.”

a man dressed as Elvis talking to another man

A man impersonating a dangerous terrorist icon

Well, this bothers me because I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m not breaking the law. I’m not selling drugs or supporting terrorism (domestic or otherwise). The problem with mass surveillance is that whoever is doing the surveilling has the power to decide what is wrong. What if you read about anonymous? Elvis? Are tracking a package? Curious about satellite phones? You need to look at your life and look at your choices, you potential threat to national security! Those are all topics on the NSA’s list of words that flag you as a potential threat.

If you think it’s insane that your email discussions about encryption or the dictionary might be of interest to the NSA, you are not the only one. The site Hello, NSA generates keyword-rich phrases based on the NSA’s wordlist. In 2013, RedditGifts had an anonymous gift exchange called Now Sharing Absurdity – the NSA Gift Exchange, which encouraged participants to theme their gifts around subjects in the NSA word list.

I am glad that there are other people who find the NSA’s behavior ridiculous, but unfortunately, a lot of people with decision-making power are not among them. The secret FISA court has made this type of warrantless spying permissible. Greenwald writes that Snowden hoped that the Obama administration would “change the excessive abuses of national security that had been justified by the War on Terror … ‘but then it became clear that Obama was not just continuing, but in many cases expanding these abuses.’”

Right now the only method that seems like it will be effective in curbing these “abuses of national security” is putting pressure on legislators to make changes and voting for people who are not committed to the status quo. One positive outcome is that the House of Representatives voted in support of an amendment that would “prevent intelligence agencies from using the funds to force software companies to build back doors into their products,” according to an article in The Daily Beast.

I wish I had more ideas for how to do something, but I do not. My biggest advice is to vote. Don’t just vote for anyone, but cast an educated vote. Follow organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which works to defend civil liberties in digital space. Educate yourself and don’t be afraid of having an unpopular opinion if your opinion is based on the facts. Edward Snowden said that his biggest concern with leaking his trove of NSA documents would be that no one would react and nothing would change. The least we can do is read up on the issue and move forward with our eyes open.

What to read next:

  • I started working my way through the original articles that Greenwald wrote for The Guardian about the Snowden leaks. I did not read many of them as they were coming out; most of my news on the subject came from Democracy Now. I am interested in seeing the progression of the leaks. Also, Greenwald is not done yet, there is at least one more major article set to release soon, as of this writing. Greenwald is now writing on a site called The Intercept.

  • When Greenwald and Laura Poitras met Snowden, they asked why he did what he did. Snowden cited the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell as one of his influences. I found this interesting because I had already checked it out from the library. Campbell wrote prolifically on comparative mythology and the role of myth in our culture. I enjoyed his book The Power of Myth, so this is definitely on my to-read list.

07 Jun

Meanwhile in Civilized Space

Book Review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancilary Justice book cover

Ancillary Justice is an awesome book. I know I’m not the only person with that opinion because it won a Nebula Award and an Arthur C. Clarke Award. Instead of focusing much on the plot (although I will address the plot because it is good, too), I want to talk about what makes this novel interesting.

Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen also known as Breq is an ancillary. Ancillaries are human bodies that belong to a space ship. Ancillaries are mentally networked with their ship. Essentially, they are people with AI (artificial intelligence). Large ships, like Justice of Toren of which Breq was an ancillary, have multiple crews of ancillaries who work together to take care of the ship and support the human crew.

The plot hinges on the concept that an AI occupying multiple bodies can have conflicting opinions. Even though the AI’s bodies are technically all the same person, none of them really individuals, they can fragment. Breq belongs to a group of ancillaries called One Esk. Among many other campaigns, One Esk serves planetside during the annexation of another culture by the dominant civilization, the Radch. Events on the planet make One Esk realize that she does, perhaps, have the ability to hold internally conflicting opinions. Later, One Esk Nineteen is isolated from One Esk and Justice of Toren and she must adapt to acting individually.

That is the barest introduction to the story. I like the way AI works in this novel. Holding it together is the ancillary system, whose brutality is barely acknowledged by the Radchaai people. Radchaai seem to find it inappropriate to discuss what ancillaries are, insisting that they are not people, but equipment, part of the ship. Ancillaries used to be people themselves. It seems that most of the bodies ancillaries inhabit were formerly those of enemy combatants or citizens of the Radch who did not fit well into the social order. The origin of the ancillaries is not much discussed, but it does seem like the sort of horror that may be exposed in the series’ next book.

A lot of aspects of Radchaai civilization (this is a redundant phrase since in Radchaai, Radchaai means “civilized”), are like that: intensely brutal, but people work hard to ignore the brutality. The Radchaai people are relentless in annexing as many other civilizations as possible. The novel eventually reveals that the Radch are so focused on annexation because annexation drives the whole economy and the system of wealth acquisition for prominent families.

I appreciate the social structure in the Radch and the detail apparent in the way the culture works. It was different enough that it had a feeling of otherness, but many of the concepts were recognizable. The Radchaai structure themselves into family Houses, with certain families being particularly wealthy and prominent. These Houses participate in a kind of patronage system, called clientage in the book. Houses with less influence can be “clients” of weather houses. Of course, this kind of system puts poor people at a disadvantage, as ever. People with influence can get better placements in the military and are assumed to just be better people. People of “low” birth are at a major disadvantage in this system.

The Radchaai demonstrate their civility through outward symbolism. No Radchaai would be caught dead without gloves, for example. I like the idea of gloves as a marker of civilization, personally. They also make public displays of worship in temples, exchange pins and jewels to affix on their uniforms, and drink tea (like all civilized people in every era, clearly).

Radchaai pins, via http://asakiyume.livejournal.com/711734.html

Ancillary Justice made me think about how I perceive gender when reading. In the Radchaai language, there is no gender binary. Everyone refers to others as “she.” Children are automatically daughters. Women are simply people. There are both men and women, of course, but the civilized Radchaai tongue does not acknowledge them as different. Neither are there explicit performative actions for femininity and masculinity; anyone can present themselves in any (socially acceptable) way. Gender presentation is not tied to propriety. When the protagonist is on a backwater world, she has to use the local language, which includes referring to people with the correct gender pronouns. Our protagonist, as an AI and former part of a ship, finds it difficult to distinguish male from female and she is at constant risk of offending others.

This un-gendering of everyone is awesome. I did not realize how strongly ingrained it was for me to see male as the default. When the author introduced a new character, I considered him to be male. There are a few biases here that made me assume everyone was male: this is a militaristic civilization (many of the main characters are lieutenants, captains, etc.) and much of the story takes place on space ships, which are also stereotypically a male thing. But when a character inevitably referred to other characters as “she,” my brain did a double take. I didn’t even realize I was imagining characters as male until I was confronted with the female pronoun. Of course, the way the novel is set up, any character could be a man (technically speaking), but that person is still referred to as a woman, and that is the civilized thing to do.

I applaud Leckie for writing a civilization that treats gender this way. Seeing how gender can be irrelevant is fascinating. Even though I am educated about many gender-related issues, I still have this male-default bias. I didn’t even know I was doing it. I hope to see more books that play with gender so skillfully. Ancillary Justice challenged assumptions I did not know I had.

What to read next:

  • It is not being released until October, but obviously my suggestions include the next book in the Imperial Radch series, Ancillary Sword. You have four months to catch up. Get on it!

  • Want to read more about artificial intelligence (I do!). Try Our Final Invention by James Barrat. This is a non-fiction book about the coming-soon technologies leading to AI.

  • Somewhat unrelated, but I read this recently and liked it: Lexicon: A Novel by Max Barry. This novel does not challenge the linguistics of gender like Ancillary Justice does, but language and how it is used drives the plot. It was an interesting read and I recommend it.

06 Apr

Married to the Sea

Book Review: Sea Change by S. M. Wheeler

Sea Change book cover

Sea Change book cover

Sea Change is a delightfully written coming-of-age fairy tale, but the old school kind of fairy tale in which there is not really a happy ending and although everyone learns something about his or herself, no one is really better off than they were at the beginning of the story. What I’m trying to say is, this is my kind of fairy tale.

I finally got around to borrowing Sea Change from the library a few weeks ago. I greatly appreciate Wheeler’s writing style and I enjoyed the flow of story. Lilly, the protagonist, is raised by her merchant father and her formerly-giant-serpent-loving mother. Lilly’s best friend is a kraken. There is also a troll, witches, and bandits. If you’re not interested yet, your sense of fantasy may be defective. Schedule an appointment with your local librarian to set up a treatment regimen.

As I mentioned, this story is a fairy tale in the classic sense. Lilly, an only child, has had a lonely sort of childhood that seems to be unique to a certain class of protagonists and to people who never quite feel connected with the rest of humanity. Of course, in Lilly’s case, she is raised in a wealthy household and there are rumors that she is a witch. Lilly is not a witch, but she does spend much of her time by the sea, chilling with her kraken friend, Octavius (“Octavius? That’s a damned stupid name for a kraken,” grouses Lilly’s father. I find it an amusing name for a kraken, however.). Lilly is also witness to many parental fights in which her father accuses her mother of making him a cuckold. When Lilly’s mother is finally driven off by her father, a step-mother joins the family (bringing the hope of a son), and Lilly’s kraken goes missing, Lilly leaves the family home, beginning her quest to locate Octavius. Lilly’s life is mirrored by her mother’s teachings. It is mentioned that Lilly’s mother gave her “practical, frightening knowledge,” but did not tell her fairy stories until she was older, “in the reversal of the usual parental pattern.” Lilly sees a harsh childhood, only to follow it up with a heroic adolescence.

I am reluctant to give away too much of the story, but I do want to open a window into the magics used to propel the narrative. Lilly, seeking Octavius, trades her womanhood to a troll who offers her information. Octavius, we learn, had been captured and was being held by a circus-owner and a witch. The cost of freeing Octavius is to bring the circus-owner a magical cloak. At this point, anyone who has read a few books or played a few video games can guess that one fetch-quest leads to another. Lilly bargains and works her way through the story until finally she can reclaim Octavius. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that the reunion is bittersweet because people with magic are jerks.

Release the kraken.

The theme that stood out to me in this novel is that everyone must change, or to borrow the name of a certain webcomic, a lesson is learned, but the damage is irreversible. Lilly, of course, goes through the most drastic sea change in really every way possible. Her body is changed. She must learn to work—something she did not need to do growing up. Eventually, her mind is irrevocably altered as well. But it is not just Lilly who changes, her parents both make major changes: her mother by finally leaving and her father in a way that I will leave for the reader to find out. Lilly’s step-mother, Mary, we learn late in the story, also had to adapt to survive. Even Octavius and Lilly’s eventual sidekick Horace (a bit of an indulgence, but I will call Horace a sidekick) change. The root of storytelling is conflict, but I like that Sea Change also recognizes that major changes must be made for people to develop. The story also takes, in my view, a neutral tone towards change. Some books seem to argue that change has a positive or negative value, but it seems that in Sea Change, change simply is. Life continues heedless of the goals and wishes of humanity.

Sea Change is full of quality wordsmithery and is written in a style that does not resemble anything else I have read in a while. Wheeler is miserly with her words, but when she does lay down descriptions, they are wonderful and sometimes humorous. One of my favorite lines came from the story of Lilly’s mother and the giant serpent she loved. A woman in town is telling Lilly the story and she says, “’Against his cheek your mother leaned, saying whatever on says to the serpent that has stolen your heart.’” There is a lot of enjoyable language here. Another snippet I liked was the metaphor of “campfires too far off to reach on a cold night;” I will leave the context of this one a mystery for the reader, but I thought it was a beautiful way to render the concept.

Since Wheeler can be stingy with the words, I sometimes got the impression that I had skipped a paragraph and would need to re-read the preceding segment. This is not an indictment of Wheeler’s writing, but I will say that her style is different. I think that since the language used is so tight—Wheeler uses one word where other writers might use four—the reader has to pay attention and really value what words are used. I saw a review on LibraryThing in which the reviewer stated that s/he could not figure out what she didn’t like about the book, but there was something of the writing style that irked her. I would guess it was this. It took me nearly the whole book to put my finger on it. Personally, I find it a refreshing change, but I can see how others may not feel the same. For an example, of what I’m describing, consider the following passage:

“Lilly put the man out of her mind; words were on her tongue, but they were insufficient. She had become proficient at opening trousers since that first awkward fumbling on the slope of Three crones Mountains. She bared herself, asked ‘Are you still interested?’”

There is so much that is communicated in this short paragraph, but little is actually written.

Finally, and unrelated to the quality of the writing, I love the cover art for this book. The cover is actually what caught my eye in the first place. Now that I’ve read the book, I like how the cover manages to represent the work without falling on any of the contemporary clichés of book covers.

In any case, I do recommend this book, especially for people who enjoy fantasy or for people who are looking for a fresh writing style.

What to read next:

What to read next is a hard question here. This book seems unrelated to everything (I mean that in the best way), but I’ll attempt some suggestions.

  • Because probably everyone needs more kraken in their life, I suggest Kraken by China Miéville. Kraken, like Miévelles work usually does, has a certain other-worldliness. It’s a bit of an urban fantasy, there’s a strange cult, magics, and all that stuff you want from your fantasy books.
  • The Dresden Files is a series by Jim Butcher about a wizard in Chicago who does freelance and consulting detective work. I’ve read a few of these stories and I classify them as “popcorn” books (tasty and quickly consumed). Some of the same magical concepts in play in Sea Change show up in The Dresden Files. There are quite a few parallels between the one I just read, Grave Peril, and Sea Change.
30 Mar

In Which Time Travel Is the Hip, New Thing

Book Review: The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma (translated by Nick Caistor)

Cover for The Map of Time

Cover for The Map of Time

The Map of Time weaves together the stories of three 19th century London characters: a wealthy young man who loves a common prostitute, a woman who is certain she cannot enjoy life in the present, and a science fiction writer who becomes embroiled in a number of schemes. You see this? I’m practicing my gripping introductions.

I have this problem with novels in which I can never muster up the enthusiasm to write about the novels I think I’m going to write about. Then there are other novels which I have no intention of discussing that I am compelled to write about. The latter scenario is what happened with The Map of Time (and the former with The Golem and the Jinni, which I finished a week or two ago and have been contemplating since). I read The Map of Time without making a point of thinking deep thoughts about it; rather I allowed the florid Victorian prose to bear me along in its current.

For the first two sections of the novel, I was not enthralled. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy Palma’s work, but neither was I especially focused on reading it—I had to renew my loan for it twice (the library is your friend, people) although that is partly because it is a pretty long book. But once I made it to the book’s third and final part, the story came together and things became significantly more interesting. The promised map of time was revealed. Time travel conventions were explored. Threads of the story were connected. Indeed, it was art.

One of the things that impressed me about The Map of Time is that Palma clearly has a strong knowledge of early science fiction and the late 19th century—the novel’s setting. One of the novel’s protagonists is, in fact, H.G. Wells himself (I don’t know if any of you watch Warehouse 13, but I always want to picture Wells as a woman now, thanks to the show’s influence. Helena!). It takes skill, and a certain amount of chutzpah, to write a real person into the story. I am no Wells aficionada, but it seemed accurate (if we are to believe Wikipedia) and I felt it was well done.

H.G. Wells writing

H. G. Wells, keeping it real

This is one of those stories that is really about writers being writerly. Wells is brought into time travel schemes—hoaxes really, but for the best of causes. In both, Wells’ supplicants are seeking closure for issues in their lives. And since time travel is in the cultural zeitgeist, they believe traveling through time can really solve their problems. Why would normal people believe in time travel? In the parallel universe of the story, a man name Gilliam Murphy has opened a time travel experience in which a form of performance art is staged to make people believe they have traveled through time. Coupled with the recent popularity of Well’s The Time Machine, people begin to think that, well, anything is possible. In any case, Wells resolves his problems through, of course, writing and story telling. One involves creating a believable story for a heartsick young man. Another involves an epistolary tale told between lovers. Finally, Wells gets his due as a main character in the last section. Letters are again involved. Wells also gets the opportunity to be the subject matter expert on time travel. I think writers love nothing more than the fantasy of writing saving lives and solving problems.

I also enjoyed the way the rules of time travel were applied in the story. In the first two sections of the story, it seems like time travel is probably just a scam. No one actually time travels, but scenarios are crafted such that a number of people believe that time travel is happening. The reader gets to be in on the secret. However, in the final episode, there really is time travel, but after a novel full of fakeries, the reader hardly wants to believe it. In the end, there is some good discussion of parallel universes and such like. I quite liked where the story ended up.

The last thing I want to comment on is the quality of the translation. The Map of Time was originally written in Spanish and was later translated to English. I obviously cannot comment on the accuracy of the translation, since I have not read the Spanish edition, but the spirit of the work is amazing. I am impressed at how well the translation captures the feel of the story’s period. I can only imagine what reading this in Spanish would feel like (that’s not true, I could go find the book and then I wouldn’t have to imagine. Dear reader, you know what I mean).

Okay, I am going to keep this review a little shorter than usual, but I do recommend this book if you like things like steampunk, alternate history, the rules and conventions of time travel, or just well-researched fiction.

What to read next:

  • The Map of the Sky by Felix J. Palma is the sequel to The Map of Time. It is apparently centered on Well’s The War of the Worlds in the way that The Map of Time is based around The Time Machine.
  • H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life by Michael Sherborne is a biography of Wells. Reading The Map of Time, I realized I did not know that much about Wells’ life.
  • Steampunk edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer is an anthology of steampunk-themed stories. If you like the setting of The Map of Time and have realized that you want more steampunk in your life, this short story collection should get you going.
13 Feb

New Work, Old Work, What’s the Difference Once Your Head’s Blown Off

Book review: Makers by Cory Doctorow

Makers book coverEver since I read Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson last year, I’ve been captivated by the maker movement. I was going to link to my awesome review about Anderson’s Makers, but then I remembered I didn’t write it (I always want to review everything, but few reviews make it out of my head). I picked up Makers from the library on a whim and thanks to name recognition of Doctrow whose Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom I’d read some years ago on an Amtrak train from Portland to Seattle.

Anyway.

Makers is a near-future/cyberpunk/science-fiction published in 2009 that strikes me as fairly prescient. I mean, I don’t know what the future holds (I hope it’s monstrous alien creatures), but given the state of things, Doctrow’s vision feels on point. The story takes place approximately 20 years from now (by my reckoning), the characters at the intersection of several groups of people coming together in the brave new economy.

The character who most resonated with me (for perhaps obvious reasons) is Suzanne Church, a journalist. She starts the story as a writer with the San Jose Mercury, an actual newspaper. Her coverage of Silicon Valley events leads her to Florida, where she meets tinkerers extraordinaires Perry and Lester. Perry and Lester live in an abandoned mall in Florida, making interesting junk out of the world’s inexhaustible supply of useless crap, utilizing our surplus of Boogie Woogie Elmos. Suzanne begins documenting Perry and Lester’s inspired madness as it gives way to the New Work movement, a sort of maker revolution that, unfortunately, doesn’t quite last for the long term.

I don’t want to summarize this book because that is boring and pointless. Go read the book. I do really like some of the concepts that percolated in my brain while I read this, so I’ll talk about those instead.

First, I liked Suzanne a lot. She quits her stable, grown-up journalism job to follow what she perceives to be the real news of the day. She reports on stuff that is simply too cool to not write about and her readers clearly respond to it, since she manages to stay in business with her site’s ad revenue. That is something I really admire, especially since, regardless of intent, writing seems to be developing into something of a career for me. I don’t think I have the ovaries to up and move to follow a story (maybe I will eventually), but the idea of just taking off after awesome things to chronicle them is fucking cool to me.

In her own way, Suzanne embodies the story’s New Work movement with what she does. Although she isn’t tinkering and creating things or using 3D printers to improve people’s lives, she is creating based on what’s around her. She still makes an important contribution to the movement, especially since it isn’t logistically feasible for everyone to be an engineer. I think the way of the new economy, as Doctorw foretells it, is that everyone is essentially their own business. And honestly, life already feels that way to me a lot right now. Many jobs I consider treat employees as independent contractors. You are a contractor and you are your own brand. So, seeing Suzanne in the novel is like reading about someone who is doing a great job managing her brand and just making her own way, fuck the rest.

Another aspect of this book that I appreciated was the nature of community and how it can be configured using the Web. In the second act of the novel, Perry and Lester’s tinkering results in “the ride.” The ride is a series of scenes composed of bricolage, staged in an abandoned WalMart. Riders upvote or downvote scenes based on whether they like them or think they belong in their personal vision of the ride. Eventually, The Story emerges. Online communities begin discussing and dissecting the story. A segment of the Florida goth community becomes particularly involved after Death Waits (né Darren) gets laid off by Disney World (of course there is Disney, this is a Cory Doctrow novel) and then has the shit kicked out of him. After word of the ride spreads to the Web, rides spring up in other cities, each with its own style and engendering its own community.

Finally, as a novel of things-to-come, I like it. The United States, it is indicated, is essentially a third world country (not hard to predict at this point, to be honest), but people make do. Consider all the empty real estate there will be—it’s put to good use by people creating their own sort of slum towns or filled with things like the ride. 3D printers play a significant role in the economic liberation of these ad hoc communities. By the end of the book, people are even making bicycles with them thanks to tireless tinkering and open-source sharing.

It always feels difficult to review novels because I want to distill my feelings and the new thoughts that I had when my brain interacted with the story. I hope this makes some kind of sense. Doctrow is definitely a prophet of the coming tech age.

What to read next:

  • If you want the non-fiction version, check out Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson. It talks about the cool stuff 3D printers are doing now. If you’re a would-be librarian like me, you can read it and think about the cool things you would do with it in a library. There are a few books about the maker movement, maker spaces, etc., but this is one that I have read and enjoyed. At this point, I have to reference my favorite Twitter feed, Fake Library Stats:
  • If you want more Cory Doctorow, I recommend Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Not only because this is the only other Doctrow book I’ve read, but because I like the cyberpunk, techie aspects of the story.
  • My third recommendation is Oryx and Crake byMargaret Atwood because I feel like this is the opposite kind of universe from Makers and because you should read Atwood. Everyone should read Atwood.
21 Apr

Scientology, Comparative Religion, and Fun with Cults

Book Review: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Going Clear cover

There is so much to say about this book that it’s hard to know where to begin. I love reading about cults/people who survived cults/wacky religious beliefs and the rest, but this is my first read on Scientology. Up until this point, my main exposure to the subject was via South Park (I’m not proud). Going Clear spans nearly 100 years of history, beginning with L. Ron Hubbard’s birth in 1911 and ending with Paul Haggis’ (the work’s protagonist, such that it can be said to have one) departure from Scientology and the subsequent uproar in 2010-2011. This book is packed with information and there are a lot of people who were interviewed and who played parts in the narrative (it has more characters than a George R. R. Martin novel). Some of the people involved are introduced early in the book as young people involved in Scientology and show up again later as adults, which I found hard to keep track of–I didn’t know I’d have to manage all the people!–but I don’t think you need to remember exactly who everyone is (other than a few power players) to appreciate the absolute insanity of a lot of the things that happen.

Going Clear is meticulously researched. It draws on interviews with lots of current and former Scientologists, court documents, medical records, and the writings of L. Ron Hubbard and other parties. The book is also peppered with footnotes to the tune of “[person’s name]’s attorney denies that X happened” and “The church denies that [person] ever did Y,” which makes one wonder what kinds of behavior that anyone’s attorney would admit to, but that is another matter. The title of the book, Going Clear, refers to the first step in being a Scientologist. When one becomes “clear,” one is free of malicious engrams and is able to work towards being an Operating Thetan (OT). Various people throughout the book are described by their Scientology levels; OT VIII is the highest level that anyone other than Hubbard has ever had access to (Hubbard supposedly penned several more levels, but no one has seen them). Operating Thetans are supposed to have amazing mental powers that can prevent sickness, bend others to one’s will, and basically a certain level of telekinesis. At least, OT levels are described this way. There is as yet no one on the record demonstrating these amazing powers, which of course makes one question why people keep on believing in it, but of course, we could ask such questions about any number of movements.

The book opens with Paul Haggis, that archetypal, directionless young person of the 1970’s who finds Scientology. People like Haggis were attracted to Scientology because of its idealism, they state that they’re working toward “A civilization without insanity, without criminals and without war, where the able can prosper and honest beings can have rights, and where Man is free to rise of greater heights,” as stated by Hubbard himself. This narrative that Scientology is actively working to improve the world seems at odds with basically everything that happens to individual Scientologists in the book, and yet, they all kept stating that they were in it for this ideal; they thought they were really helping. Haggis is the bread in this Scientology sandwich. After his introduction, the reader doesn’t hear about him again until much later in the book when he begins questioning Scientology.

L. Ron Hubbard’s (the L is for Lafayette) early years, when examined from the perspective of Scientology as it is today, are quite revealing. Wright traces the development of some of the themes of Scientology back to Hubbard’s youth, which I think is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. Analyzing modern “religions” and charismatic leaders is so different from tracing the history of someone like the Prophet Muhammad because there is actually a record of what people did and one can draw conclusions about how that influenced their later work. One of the formative experiences of Hubbard’s life was traveling by boat from Seattle to Washington D.C. via the Panama Canal. Hubbard was taken in by Commander Joseph C. “Snake” Thompson on the trip, who was “of the US Navy Medical Corps. A neurosurgeon, a naturalist, and a former spy, Thompson made a vivid impression on [Hubbard].” Thompson also schooled Hubbard on Freudian theory, which doubtless had an impact on Hubbard’s later preoccupation with pyschiatrists and psychologists. There are so many anecdotes (and fabrications, which Wright compares to evidence and accounts from other people) about Hubbard’s early life  that it is difficult to choose what to discuss in a short review, but I will mention that Hubbard briefly served in the US Navy during World War II. He insisted he was a hero and I’m sure this also was a part of his choice to later make Scientology a maritime venture. He was also connected with several people on Hollywood, and it seemed that he was fascinated with society there, but he never made it big, which I think was also a factor in the later choice for Scientology to court celebrities so seriously.

Dianetics was Hubbard’s first effort and producing a work that would define a movement. It quickly became popular because it capitalized on the public’s interest in psychology and psychotherapy, but it supposedly offered people the tools to treat themselves without any actual academic or scientific grounding. Although its popularity burned brightly, it burned out quickly when people realized that Dianetics didn’t actually enable them to do fantastical feats with mental powers. Hubbard, an autocrat at heart, decided that Dianetics had gotten out of hand, and choose to rebrand it as Scientology. He is quoted as saying “I’d like to start a religion. That’s where the money is.” Shortly after Scientology began, Hubbard moved to England with his family (well, his new family, Hubbard had three wives and seven children throughout his life). Soon, Hubbard became paranoid that “British, American, and Soviet governments were interested in gaining control of Scientology’s secrets in order to use them for evil intentions.” To combat this, he bought three boats, gathered up his staunchest believers (who all signed billion year contracts, yes, billion since Scientology subscribes to reincarnation) and founded the Sea Org, which came to be what is essentially Scientology’s clergy. The Sea Org is when, it seems to me, that the real abuses of power began. Parents were separated from their children, abandoned at various ports, and in one case, representatives were caught up in a popular uprising in Morocco. At this time, many of Scientology’s procedures were codified, like the RPF rundown, which involved locking up a dissenter in a room with no contact for several weeks. The practice later evolved to include making such people stay in confinement for years, in some cases, and do labor while there.

There are a lot of tragic events described in Going Clear, but I want to spend some time looking at Scientology from a comparative religion perspective, with a focus on similarities between Scientology and Mormonism (full disclosure: I was raised Mormon). Later in the history of Scientology, when they were back on land, Hubbard was working to get a film made. The script was shopped around and an offer for $10 million came in (at the time, a record sum for a script purchase). Upon investigation of the buyers, they learned that the  buyers were mormons and “Hubbard figured that the only reason Mormons would buy it was to put it on the shelf,” which is probably true. I find it interesting that Mormons would want to suppress a Scientologist message, considering that the movements really have a lot in common as modern religious movements. There are a lot of parallels to be found between Joseph Smith (the founder of Mormonism) and L. Ron Hubbard. Smith was a known huckster and treasure hunter before starting Mormonism, as Hubbard was a prolific science fiction writer before Scientology–both had a flair for the fictitious. Hubbard also took multiple wives (to say nothing of mistresses) without divorcing, although a few wives isn’t much compared to Smith, they are both outside cultural norms. I would also make the argument that Scientology’s doctrine of spirits being sent to Earth as punishment by a more powerful force has some parallel to Mormonism’s concept of there being a “war in heaven,” which Satan lost and God won. Except in the case of Mormonism, the losers weren’t sent to Earth for punishment, they went straight to hell. Both movements also have a period of being on a journey early in their  history. The Mormons, of course, were hounded out of New York and across the Midwest, finally taking a long trek to what is now Utah to escape persecution. Hubbard sailed the Mediterranean and Carribean for several years with his Sea Org to escape what he perceived as persecution. Although the early periods have a lot in common, I will admit that the later histories diverge. Mormonism doesn’t have the forced labor of the RPF (although young people are required to serve missions under extremely spartan conditions) and it also seems to have found a broader appeal than Scientology. However, as comparative cases they are interesting to consider in the context of the development of modern, American religions.

Although there are many differences between contemporary Mormonism and Scientology, some of the tactics they use have similar roots. One line from Going Clear regarding a Sea Org member who wanted to leave explained, “Most of those who fled were torn by conflicting emotions. On the one hand, they were often frightened, humiliated, and angry. They desperately wanted a life outside the organization.” Many people who leave Scientology quickly realize that they don’t know much of the real world, and many of the people who joined as young people or who were born into the religion lack a formal education and haven’t graduated high school (which reminds me of fundamentalist Mormons–the ones that practice polygamy and live in compounds). Scientology is described as being completely consuming. While Mormonism allows people to have lives outside of church, they pack the week so full of church functions that people often find it difficult to do much else, it truly can be difficult to figure out what one’s life is after the organization. Another tactic used by Scientology is “disconnection,” which is the practice of encouraging Scientologists to cut themselves off from anyone or anything that isn’t related to Scientology. This ensures that Scientologists are so emotionally and socially invested that leaving involves a total social suicide. Mormons operate in similar ways. As the good people of Reddit’s exmormon community will tell you, families do disown members who leave Mormonism with alarming frequency.

Comparing Mormonism and Scientology is both part of my fascination with cults and also a way of validating my own experiences. Something about seeing similar tactics documented in other cults (I will go ahead and call it a cult) makes me feel a little less foolish. Obviously these strategies work. We have seen all sorts of movements rise and fall and maintain zealous members using these strategies. Some parts of Going Clear hit close to home, but there were just as many things totally outside of my experience that were absolutely tragic. It’s hard to know what to write about this book because there is just so much to tell; so many stories, so many lives ruined or people’s emotions and sense of self destroyed. This is probably not my best review because I did react very emotionally to this book. I appreciate non-fiction work on religious movements like some people are into horror. It produces that “can’t look away” fascination. I marked a lot of sections in this book that I wanted to talk about, but instead I’ll leave you with this. Be rational for your own self. Be compassionate to other people and then maybe they won’t feel such strong needs to find meaning and acceptance in cults. Read this book because you will be horrified and sad and feel like you want to punch someone.